Chicago Sun Times 11.3.11

‘SNL’ Emmy winner brings her ‘musical brilliance’ to Rosie O’Donnell’s show

Katreese Barnes is about to break a sweat. Seated behind her Yamaha keyboard in the house that Oprah built, Barnes and her four-piece band are amusing themselves and the crew during a rehearsal lull at “The Rosie Show.” Launched Oct. 10, it’s produced out of Harpo Studios in the West Loop and airs on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Since her hiring in mid-September, Barnes has served as the fledgling program’s music director, a post for which she resigned from a plum but pressure-packed gig as “Saturday Night Live’s” in-house maestro after an 11-year, award-winning tenure with the venerable NBC sketchfest.

Anyway, sweat. Onstage, so as to nail down lighting, blocking and timing before host Rosie O’Donnell arrives, stand-ins have been plowing speedily and goofily through various game show segments that O’Donnell (once in the running to succeed Bob Barker as host of “The Price is Right”) referees toward the end of each confetti-capped extravaganza. Colored lights beam from overhead and floor level. Air conditioning hums, keeping the 260-seat space just short of frosty.

Then, apropos of nothing, it begins: Bap! Bap! Bap! Bap!

Wearing head-to-toe black and a stylish wavy ’do, the bandstand-perched Barnes is thrusting her fists sideward and skyward to the beat of drums.

“We’re creating an exercise portion of the show,” she casually announces.

Like a locomotive leaving Union Station, her routine starts slowly, and soon it’s chugging along at a rapid clip.

As bandmates cheer, Barnes flaps her arms like a chicken, throws jabs and clutches her throat while thrashing about. All the guys are laughing, chipping in with small licks of their own. Drummer Khari Parker uses his iPhone to broadcast the sound of clucking.

Then Barnes, who emits bursts of laughter and is audibly short of breath, puts her hands together in a prayerful, quasi-meditative pose and makes guttural “ohmmmmm” noises into her microphone.

And … here go the arms again. She’s swimming, she’s swimming. Now she’s rocking to and fro. “Ohmmmmm.” Middle Eastern-esque strains occasionally punctuated by a bleating sheep — “Baaaaaaa!” — and a cat’s meow provide bizarre accompaniment.

The inspired wackiness lasts several minutes before director Joe Terry proclaims over loudspeakers, “Stand by for ‘Scramboozled,’ ” and it’s back to business. Of a sort.

“We’re just laughing all the time,” says Barnes’ older brother and sole sibling, Jerry, whom she brought along as her bassist. “I didn’t think that on a comedy show we would actually laugh behind the scenes as much as we are.”

Although Barnes was constantly surrounded by and working with funny folks at “SNL,” the deadline-driven atmosphere there isn’t always conducive to levity. Besides, a decade-plus at 30 Rock was plenty.

“The visibility that you need as a performer for people to know what you do … so you can generate a real career for yourself, I didn’t see it happening there,” Barnes says. “That show’s really about the comedy. So if you’re not getting the visibility, you’re kind of stuck there unless you really promote yourself and work hard to create something outside of the show.”

Which she did — an Off-Broadway, comedy-infused, jazz-funk-R&B homage to the music of Elton John called “Rocketman.” But it garnered little notice, despite her billing on promotional posters as “SNL’s” music director.

“I think people thought I was lying,” Barnes says, “so they didn’t show up.”

She did, however, work closely with Sir Rocketman himself when he hosted “SNL” earlier this year. “What a f---in’ honor to play and write a musical number for Elton John,” she tweeted in early April. “My life is complete.”

More f---in’ honors include two Emmys, both for scoring “SNL” parodies (2006’s mega-viral “D--- in a Box” and a swinging monologue number for last season’s finale called “Not Gonna Sing Tonight”) that featured actor and pop superstar Justin Timberlake. She’s not sure why the two of them jell so well.

“Chemistry is what it is,” she says. “I know he even said to me, ‘I don’t meet too many people I can just communicate something to and they can deliver.’ ”

“D--- in a Box” co-writer and “SNL” contributor Jorma Taccone says Barnes’ high musical reference level lent crucial authenticity to send-ups that might otherwise have come off as merely silly. From classical to funk, rock to rap, her knowledge runs the genre gamut.

Taccone recalls, too, how Barnes was always on hand during the show’s fabled all-night writing frenzies each Tuesday. Even sleep-deprived, she conjured “awesome” tunes in a flash.

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Barnes, who may or may not be in her late 40s (she declined to confirm), began performing more than three decades ago with brother Jerry. As the ’80s R&B duo Juicy (initially an acronym for Joint United Incredible Creative Youth), they recorded a few albums — for Epic and Arista labels — while based in their home state of North Carolina. In the early ’90s, they relocated to New York City.

“I don’t even know what we were thinking,” Barnes says. “My dad was our manager, and it was just time to make that move.”

Fortunately, they had an in. Singer Roberta Flack, with whom they shared a producer, dug their grooving and asked them to join her tour.

“That was the beginning of starting to realize we could make money as musicians,” says Barnes, who also plays the saxophone.

But it wasn’t long before her dreams of becoming a headliner were tempered by reality.

“I started realizing that life as a solo artist is so hard, especially as a person who didn’t want to be stuck in a niche. Even though R&B was cool and I think it’s a big part of my musical history, I resented having to be in only one category. So I decided then that I would prefer a life of production and writing for people.”

Barnes says she’s content with her chosen path. Jerry agrees. And he thinks she’s better off at “Rosie” than she was at “SNL.”

“She has always been a fighter, always,” he says of his sister, a two-time breast cancer survivor. “Even if it was a fight that wasn’t necessary, she just is that kind of a person. But I think her being happy emotionally will heal her better than a fight. And I see her being happy [here]. As a brother, I’m so happy for her. There’s a part of me that has a sense of peace seeing her flow in her new situation.”

There’s no doubt in his mind, Jerry says, that a burden has been lifted. “[‘SNL’] is indescribable pressure and responsibility, and I personally don’t think she was appreciated properly.”

Now, he says, she is.

Tough though it was to leave her friends and home in New York (she’d been in her apartment there only since January), Barnes says she’s comforted by Jerry’s presence. She’s also loving the sprawl of her 2,000-square-foot River West pad, which has plenty of room for her shiny black Bosendorfer baby grand, sizable sofa and whiskey collection. Perhaps just as important, she’ll avoid cabs that smell (as per a Twitter assessment) like “dead testicles” by commuting to nearby Harpo in her just-purchased Kia Soul. And she’s already steeling herself for Chicago’s bitter winters, having recently acquired a vintage fur and Uggs boots.

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O’Donnell, for her part, seems thrilled to have Barnes on board — not to mention surprised that she forsook network television for lower-budget cable. And while the former stand-up appreciates her newly acquired melody maker’s skills as a comedy collaborator, they’re not what landed Barnes the job.

“I just knew that artistically, musically, she was unbelievably gifted,” O’Donnell says. “And she gets the gist of comedy because she was surrounded by it for so long. So it is something that speaks to her. But there was no way that I thought she was funny. I didn’t hire her for her comedic essence, we hired her for her musical brilliance.”

Barnes’ on-air rapport with her boss remains a work in progress. “I try to sort of break through and get her to be communicative and chatty,” O’Donnell says. “She’s just really not. She’s very into her music and very sweet, but really an introvert in some ways.”

Barnes acknowledges a disconnect, saying O’Donnell “doesn’t realize what I’m doing before she comes out. Like, I’m teaching the band new songs or we had to throw something together because it was requested. So by the time she’s asking me a question I’m like, ‘Huh? Wha?’ ”

Coupled with the respondent’s dumbfounded expression, it actually makes for a humorous exchange that might function well as a running gag. Or not. Like everyone else at the show, Barnes is still experimenting. Even at this early stage, though, she’s certain of one thing: “Rosie” is the potential-rife continuation of an increasingly rewarding career she never expected to have.

“Prior to [‘SNL’] I was always trying to be a solo artist, and none of those deals ever worked out,” she says. “One deal would flop or managers would destroy a record deal or a record company would fold. It would always be something. And so I went, ‘OK, I guess I’m on a comedy show. Cool, cool.’ And then it was like, ‘I’m writing for comedy.’ And then, ‘Oh, my God, I just won an Emmy.’ It really was like that. It wasn’t in the stars.”